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Field work with Nature Live

4 Posts tagged with the specimens tag
1

Before our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, I conducted the following short interview with Jo Wilbraham, an algae and seaweed specialist:

GA: Can you tell me about your fieldwork methods when collecting seaweeds?

JW: When searching the intertidal zone, we aim to spot all distinct species and collect samples where necessary for identification/voucher preservation. It is important to get an eye in for spotting seaweeds that look different, which probably are (but not necessarily) different species. Observation is the key to finding and recording species diversity. Photos of species in situ and the general habitat are very useful as are notes on observations in the field etc.

 

GA: What do you do with the specimen after it has been collected?

JW: We Identify the samples. We tend to take a microscope and ID book to the field station with us if possible, and work on identifications in the evening before pressing the specimens.

 

GA: Can drawing help to tune the scientist’s observation, benefiting their scientific fieldwork?

JW: Observation is critical in fieldwork as you are trying to visually pick out the species diversity of the group you are looking for against a lot of background ‘noise’. This is where drawing is very helpful and delineation can show important morphology and omit surrounding details. We never have much time as we also have to press the specimens/change wet drying papers etc. So there is no time to do drawings or extensive notes.

 

Shared methods

 

During the trip, the field methods of exploring, observing and collecting were shared by the artist and the scientist. It is the motivations, selection criteria and outcomes of the fieldwork that differentiate what we do.

 

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Diagram showing where artistic and scientific fieldwork methods converge and diverge.

 

As an artist, I identify the morphological subset of forms within the specimen and then re-order and re-classify the specimen through drawing methods. I spend time with the specimen in it’s three-dimensional form, observing and drawing, building on my previous drawing and observational practice. The scientists take lots of photos of the specimen and then process it for the Museum collections, pressing plants into two dimensional forms and pinning insect material.

 

Although observation is still important in many scientific practices, the motivation behind observation in fieldwork is to identify the specimen (to name) and observational drawing is rarely prioritised in contemporary practice. I do not want to name the specimen, but to creatively explore it’s morphology through drawing methods in order to expand what and how I can know about the object.

 

Drawing the ‘uncollected’ fieldwork specimens

 

The collected fieldwork specimens are immediately pressed; their three-dimensional form squeezed into two dimensions before anyone - scientist or artist - has observed them in detail. It becomes clear that there is no time on fieldwork for the scientists to draw the collected specimens, or even for an artist to draw them!

 

But I am still determined to draw what the scientists have collected, and I decide to ask  if I can draw the specimens that  will not be taken back to the Museum - ‘the collected, uncollected’. These specimens, which have been brought together by the scientists, create a very unusual species combination at the field station. They are superfluous to the needs of this field trip, and would otherwise be thrown away as rubbish, so drawing them transforms them into a different material, it is a nice form of recycling!

 

etching-process700.jpgDrawing leftover specimens: the etching process.

 

I draw the specimens together to create a micro environment, where the work of the scientists and the artist combine. As an artist I am interested in how these specimens, which have been valued and subsequently devalued, can be re-valued and re-known through drawing practice; a practice which scientists are valuing less and less in contemporary scientific work.

 

finished-etching.jpgA scan of the finished etching: 'Collected, uncollected'.

 

I have explored these ideas further in my recent research paper ‘Endangered: A study of the declining practice of morphological drawing in zoological taxonomy’ (Published by Leonardo Journal, MIT Press 2013). I focus on the established drawing practice of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum in relation to my own drawing practice, adapted to the camera lucida device.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At the field station on St. Mary’s I find Martin Honey, an entomologist who works on lepidoptera. He shows me his moth trap, which is a circular vessel filled with empty egg cartons with a glass lid and a large light bulb in the middle (in other words, it looks a bit like a big rice cooker with a light bulb sticking out of the top!).

moth-trap-600.jpgMartin's moth trap in a shady area at the field station. Awaiting winged nighttime visitors.

 

Martin tells me that when he switches on the bulb - which is mainly ultraviolet light - at night, the moths are attracted and once inside, they can rest on the egg cartons until he collects them in the morning. Martin keeps the trap in shady places so that the moths don’t get too hot in the sunlight. He shows me a few specimens that are inside and says he has just freed quite a lot so if I come back tomorrow he will keep some for me to draw.

 

Martin shows me a specimen that he has put to sleep with a special liquid. The moth’s wings are closed, and I ask how the wings are kept open as we see in the museum collections. This proves to be a good question...

 

In the field work room we find Martin's microscope and a few dozen moth specimens. He tells me that the wings are set by hand, and proceeds to show me how this is done. He carefully takes a moth specimen with forceps and places it under the microscope alongside some pins, which are so small they are almost invisible!

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Moth specimens and pins at the microscope, ready for setting.

 

Martin looks down the microscope, controls the instrumental pins with forceps and begins to slowly open the wings… he arranges the legs at 45 degrees and makes sure the antennae are forward, then slowing impresses the pins into the foam to hold the posture that he has now created for the moth specimen. He makes it look effortless and I am inspired, it is really quite an artful practice.

 

Martin tells me he learned to set moth wings by hand at the Museum, and I am intrigued to hear more:

GA: Are all entomologists at the NHM expected to do this in their job description?

MH: Some people just cannot do this, it requires too much dexterity.

GA: So some scientists can do it, but are people employed just to do the setting, and in the past, has the NHM employed setting staff?

MH: Yes - there used to be a special room called the setting room in the NHM, and specially trained people just did that work. Now there are specialist setters in Prague, they are not scientists but mostly amateur entomologists. I may send the larger specimens there depending on their number and I might do some setting work when I retire, and challenge the Prague group!

live-specimens-550.jpgMartin gives me four live moth specimens found on St.Mary's. I will draw them and let them go afterwards.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At 10am I find Mark Spencer and Jacek Wajer on St. Mary's south beach identifying a plant specimen with a field guide. The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost habitat for a number of plant species, including aeoniums, which originate from the Canary Islands and were introduced in the 1850’s as a garden plant. But it is not the garden plants that Mark and Jacek are interested in, it is the weeds.

 

While we root around in flower beds by the south beach, local authorities jokingly suggest that they could do with a bit of weeding. "Save us some effort!" they say. Mark tells them about the Museum's work and assures them that we will indeed be helping remove some of the unwanted plants. The three of us continue to nosy around in the flower beds.

mark-bagging-weeds.jpgBy the south beach on St. Mary's, Mark Spencer approaches weeding with more enthusiasm than most.

 

We find lots of interesting weeds and some fungi, and I find a small succulent weed which Mark says may never have been recorded at St. Mary's before. The specimens we select show a good representation of the whole plant in maturity; flower, leaf, all salient features that are necessary to qualify for the herbarium. The morning’s collections are then bagged and tagged, each labelled with who collected it, the location, the date and the species. It may take up to six months for the specimens to be dried, prepared and mounted on a herbarium sheet, at which point they finally become part of the Museum’s collections.

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Unidentified succulent weed found by Gemma Anderson in a flower bed near St. Mary's beach. A possible first record of this species for the area.

 

We then carry the bagged plants back to base for sorting. Delicate specimens are prioritised, and the specimens are left to wilt overnight in a flower press until herbarium paper is brought on Monday.

 

At 4pm we leave the base and walk to the east of St. Mary's, plant spotting in hedges along the way. Jacek spots another possible new plant record for the Isles of Scilly, and we immediately press the specimen in my sketchbook before continuing along footpaths, small lanes, fields and coastal paths. We finally come to gorse land in wave formations, a micro landscape which Mark tells us is an endangered environment. There is an unusual mix of white and purple heather and a folkloric atmosphere as a rainbow emerges overhead.

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An unusual mix of white and purple heather on the Heathland, St.Marys.

 

I ask Mark if the walk is part of his method: to orientate, to locate, and to formulate ideas and questions. He replies ‘yes, very much so’. I had taken an observational walk the evening before for the very same reasons; as artist and scientist, this method is essential to the beginning of our fieldwork.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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Yesterday, our collaborators at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) warned Dan that some of his specimens were leaking.  Not good news!

 

All of the lichen and invertebrate specimens (collected over the past 6 weeks of sampling in the forests of Borneo) are now at UMS, waiting to be sorted and packed and eventually loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for further study and identification.

 

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But the invertebrate specimens cannot be transported or stored safely while they are leaking alcohol (which acts to preserve the specimens) so it was all hands on deck this morning at UMS.

 

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The container the specimens had been stored in was swimming in alcohol.

 

On arriving at the university we discovered it was one container in particular that was causing the trouble.  Inside were specimens that had been collected by other NHM scientists in Danum Valley, but instead of being stored in tubes they had been sealed in plastic bags…that were meant to be leak-proof.  But the bags had failed and now there was alcohol swilling around the container producing a particularly bad smell!  Left in this condition the specimens would soon rot.

 

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The painstaking task of carefully emptying the bags and putting the contents into tubes.

 

So, one by one, the bags were opened and the contents removed and resealed in plastic, screw-top tubes.  A valuable lesson in the importance of reliable storing methods, without which weeks of collecting and hard work can be for nothing.  On the upside, it did give us the opportunity to see some different and interesting specimens including various ‘horned’ beetles, large cicadas and a crab!  The latter presumably having been collected close to a fresh water river.

 

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An unexpected discovery amongst the collected specimens.

 

But it wasn’t just Dan, Kerry and Keiron (with the added help of Tony) who were kept busy with attending to specimens today.  Elsewhere in the university, Pat and Holger had discovered one of the main difficulties with storing specimens in the tropics – humidity.   The specimens of lichens had been left in closed, plastic bags, and consequently moisture had collected and was causing the lichens to become damp.  A dangerous situation that can lead to the growth of mould and the loss of entire collections of samples.  Needless to say, everyone was kept busy for most of the day.

 

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Packing specimens for transportation involves lots of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap!

 

Finally, once re-sealed and re-labelled, the invertebrate specimens were carefully packed by a removal company, ready for transportation to the UK.  Not the most common of courier requests!

 

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Dan was particularly pleased when the last box was sealed!

 

Having rinsed the smell of alcohol and dung beetles off of our hands, we decided to spend what was left of the day exploring the city.  Kota Kinabalu is clearly a busy and bustling city and well set-up for tourists, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from and markets selling memorabilia and gifts. And it doesn’t all stop when the sun goes down…in fact it gets better!  By the waterfront is a massive, open-air night market, selling vast quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide array of fish.   At some stalls, you can choose the fish you want and they will cook it for you, there and then.  We had to give it a try!

 

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One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 

 

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I think Kerry managed to trump my tasty but tiny prawn!